WASHINGTON -- After one more embarrassing revelation in a mushrooming ethics cloud, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy announced his resignation yesterday, effective Dec. 31, saying he needed to turn his attention to restoring his "good name."
The first African-American to serve as agriculture secretary, Mr. Espy, 40, has been under investigation by an independent counsel for possible federal violations resulting from his acceptance of gifts from individuals and companies that do business with the Agriculture Department. The White House counsel's office had been conducting a separate probe into whether Mr. Espy violated ethics guidelines.
In accepting Mr. Espy's resignation yesterday, President Clinton said in an unusually blunt statement that he was "troubled by the appearance of some of these incidents and believes that his decision to leave is appropriate."
The list of possible missteps, which include accepting sports tickets and plane rides, mounted in recent months. Last week, the White House learned from Mr. Espy's lawyer that his girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey, had received a $1,200 scholarship from Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest poultry processor -- a revelation said to have been the last straw for the White House. Ms. Dempsey, 37, was awarded the money to further her studies at the University of Maryland, where she is pursuing a bachelor's degree and has completed one year. The money has been repaid.
At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Espy admitted that he had been "careless" in managing some of his personal activities. In that, he said, "I have failed myself, and for that, I apologize to the president and to the loyal people who have served so well."
He insisted that the allegations against him were "untrue and unfounded" and said he owed it to himself and his family to mount a vigorous defense. "I must personally overcome the challenge to my good name that continues to distract from my work at USDA," he said. Mr. Espy said he and the White House agreed that he should stay on through the end of the year because "it would take at least 90 days to fulfill an orderly transition."
Mr. Clinton praised the agriculture secretary as a "relentless champion for American farmers and consumers." But he added that, "although Secretary Espy has said he has done nothing wrong," the appearance of the incidents was troubling.
In recent months, in an effort to erase even the appearance of wrongdoing, Mr. Espy has repaid more than $7,500 to the government or outside organizations for gifts and favors he received.
At the request of the Justice Department, the independent counsel was appointed in August after it was discovered that the secretary had accepted sports tickets, travel and lodging from companies such as Tyson, an Arkansas firm that also has close ties to Mr. Clinton.
Since then, Mr. Espy's troubles have continued. Documents disclosed last month showed that Mr. Espy, a former Mississippi congressman who was said to be entertaining thoughts of running for governor or senator of Mississippi, visited his home state on about a quarter of his domestic trips, usually with the government picking up the tab.
It was further disclosed last month that the independent counsel was looking at Mr. Espy's possible use of government cars for personal use.
And yesterday, Mr. Espy's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, discussed the $1,200 Tyson foundation scholarship, awarded earlier this year to Ms. Dempsey.
"Ms. Dempsey used the money to resume her education at the University of Maryland," Mr. Weingarten said. "Secretary Espy did not seek, encourage or approve of this scholarship. Patricia Dempsey is a mature, independent woman who has her own life and has her own relationship with Tysons."
Reached by phone last night, Ms. Dempsey declined to comment about the scholarship. Her lawyer, James Cole, would say only: "It had nothing to do with Secretary Espy."
Administration officials who had been conducting their own inquiry into Mr. Espy's conduct were told about the scholarship by Mr. Weingarten late last week. Mr. Espy was then summoned to the White House, along with his attorney.
"It obviously raised a matter of serious concern," said one senior administration official.
White House officials told Mr. Espy that they believed he had left himself wide open to the suggestion that he had a conflict of interest -- and that he may have violated rules regarding gifts that apply to executive branch officials. A report on that aspect of the case is due out, probably by the end of this week.
"The question is: [Was Tyson Foods] trying to curry favor in any way with the secretary?" said a senior administration official. "The secretary has denied that he in any way favored Tyson, and we have no reason to doubt that. We have no [evidence] that he had, but on the other hand, the appearance is very troubling."
White House officials indicated yesterday that the most recent allegation finally persuaded Mr. Clinton that Mr. Espy had to go.
Low-key and well-liked, Mr. Espy earned high marks early on for his quick responses to the deadly E. coli bacteria outbreak in the Northwest and the floods in the Midwest, but was criticized for poor organization. He follows Defense Secretary Les Aspin as the second member of the Clinton Cabinet to resign, and the first to resign under an ethics cloud.
The White House tried to avoid the appearance of having pushed Mr. Espy out, since the former congressman had been loyal to the president, having worked to mobilize the black vote for candidate Clinton.
Speculation about a successor has focused on, among others, Ruth Harkin, head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the wife of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa; and on Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, who just lost the primary in his home state.